United States District Court, D. Oregon, Medford Division
OPINION AND ORDER
ANCER L. HAGGERTY, District Judge.
Plaintiff Jerry Deen Hargrave, Jr. seeks judicial review of a final decision by the Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration denying his application for Disability Insurance Benefits (DIB). This court has jurisdiction to review the Acting Commissioner's decision under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). After reviewing the record, this court concludes that the Acting Commissioner's decision must be reversed and remanded for further proceedings.
A claimant is considered "disabled" under the Social Security Act if: (1) he or she is unable to engage in any substantial gainful activity (SGA) "by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which can be expected to result in death or which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than twelve months, " and (2) the impairment is "of such severity that he is not only unable to do his previous work but cannot, considering his age, education, and work experience, engage in any other kind of substantial gainful work which exists in the national economy." Hill v. Astrue, 688 F.3d 1144, 1149-50 (9th Cir. 2012) (citing 42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3); Tackett v. Apfel, 180 F.3d 1094, 1098 (9th Cir. 1999)); 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(l)(A).
The Commissioner has established a five-step sequential evaluation process for determining if a person is eligible for benefits. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a), 416.920(a). In steps one through four, the Commissioner must determine whether the claimant (1) has not engaged in SGA since his or her alleged disability onset date; (2) suffers from severe physical or mental impairments; (3) has severe impairments that meet or medically equal any of the listed impairments that automatically qualify as disabilities under the Social Security Act; and (4) has a residual functional capacity (RFC) that prevents the claimant from performing his or her past relevant work. Id. An RFC is the most an individual can do in a work setting despite the total limiting effects of all his or her impairments. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1545(a)(l), 416.945(a)(l), and Social Security Ruling (SSR) 96-8p. The claimant bears the burden of proof in the first four steps to establish his or her disability.
At the fifth step, however, the burden shifts to the Commissioner to show that jobs exist in a significant number in the national economy that the claimant can perform given his or her RFC, age, education, and work experience. Gomez v. Chafer, 74 F.3d 967, 970 (9th Cir. 1996). If the Commissioner cannot meet this burden, the claimant is considered disabled for purposes of awarding benefits. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(f)(l), 416.920(a). On the other hand, if the Commissioner can meet its burden, the claimant is deemed to be not disabled for purposes of determining benefits eligibility. Id
The Commissioner's decision must be affirmed if it is based on the proper legal standards and its findings are supported by substantial evidence in the record as a whole. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Tackett, 180 F.3d at 1097; Andrews v. Shalala, 53 F.3d 1035, 1039 (9th Cir. 1995). Substantial evidence is more than a scintilla but less than a preponderance; it is "such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Sandgathe v. Chafer, 108 F.3d 978, 980 (9th Cir. 1997) (citation omitted).
When reviewing the decision, the court must weigh all of the evidence, whether it supports or detracts from the Commissioner's decision. Tackett, 180 F.3d at 1098. The Commissioner, not the reviewing court, must resolve conflicts in the evidence, and the Commissioner's decision must be upheld in instances where the evidence supports either outcome. Reddickv. Chater, 157 F.3d 715, 720-21 (9th Cir. 1998). If, however, the Commissioner did not apply the proper legal standards in weighing the evidence and making the decision, the decision must be set aside. Id. at 720.
FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY
Plaintiff was born in 1961 and completed the twelfth grade. He also has work experience as a farm supervisor, farm laborer, and bio-diesel plant manager. Plaintiff protectively filed his application for DIB on January 23, 2009, alleging that he has been disabled since January 14, 2009. The claim was denied initially on July 15, 2009, and upon reconsideration. At plaintiffs request, an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) conducted a hearing on December 16, 2011. The ALJ heard testimony from plaintiff, who was represented by counsel, as well as an independent vocational expert (VE).
On January 6, 2012, the ALJ issued a decision finding that plaintiff was not disabled under the Act. At step one of the sequential analysis, the ALJ found that plaintiff had engaged in SGA since January 14, 2008, his alleged onset date. Tr. 11.Plaintiff earned a total of $27, 349.77 in 2010 while working as a farm supervisor. He continued to work in that role through the middle of April 2011 and earned approximately $2, 500.00 per month. Despite finding that plaintiff engaged in SGA in 2010 and 2011, the ALJ proceeded to the next steps of the sequential analysis because plaintiffs application for DIB included a period between January 2008 and March 2010 when he had no reported earnings. Tr. 12.
At step two, the ALJ found that plaintiff suffers from the following medically determinable severe impairments: degenerative disease of the lumbar spine, status post two fusion surgeries. Tr. 12. After considering plaintiffs severe and non-severe impairments, the ALJ determined that plaintiff does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals a listed impairment in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. Tr. 12. After considering the entire record, the ALJ found that plaintiff has the RFC to perform light work as defined in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1567(b) except he can lift/carry up to fifteen pounds, on both an occasional and frequent basis, and perform tasks that involve about four hours of standing or walking (up to thirty minutes at a time), and about five hours of sitting (up to fifty minutes at a time). Such tasks must permit him to have a brief change position every thirty minutes. He can occasionally balance, stoop, kneel, crouch, crawl, or climb stairs or ramps. He must avoid climbing ladders, ropes, or scaffolds. He can engage in frequent, but not constant, reaching overhead and all other directions. He must avoid concentrated exposure to extreme cold. Tr. 12-13. Based on plaintiffs RFC and the testimony of the VE, the ALJ found that plaintiff is capable of performing past relevant work as a farm supervisor (Dictionary of Occupational Title 407.131-010; heavy (actually performed at a sedentary level); skilled). The ALJ found that this work does not require the performance of work-related activities precluded by plaintiffs RFC. Tr. 17. In the altemative, the ALJ relied on the testimony of the VE to determine that plaintiff is able to perform work existing in significant numbers in the national economy, such as farm equipment customer service tech, farm equipment sales, and production scheduler. Therefore, the ALJ concluded that plaintiff is not disabled. Tr. 17.
On May 16, 2013, the Appeals Council denied plaintiffs request for review, making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Acting Commissioner. Plaintiff subsequently ...